2012 has been a kind of gap year in American writing. With the incapacity of the Pulitzer jury to name a single winner—Ann Patchett called it “the year we all lost”—and no new Jonathan Franzen novel to overrate, it seems that everyone eventually turned to YA fiction and read The Hunger Games (at least, that’s what was happening on campus last Spring, but that might’ve been induced by final exam-related stress). Now, there’s been D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, but that’ll surely be the first of many, so it doesn’t really count, does it? And while this may be the year in which Philip Roth (or Bob Dylan?) finally gets his Nobel, we won’t know until a few weeks. Besides, it remains highly unlikely.
In the meantime, we can discuss the one book that critics and readers could fall back on and rave about all through 2012: John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection of essays: Pulphead. I first heard about this book in The Millions, one of my usual sources for this sort of thing, where the wonderful Bill Morris gave the book a roaring review. I made a mental note and didn’t think much more of it, until I came upon one of Sullivan’s essays in a Paris Review number I own (Sullivan also happens to be the Southern Editor for the magazine). I gave the essay, titled “Unnamed Caves,” a try on the toilet bowl one morning and, sure enough, that particular Paris Review number was quickly upgraded to the reading chair. I was hooked on Sullivan’s fresh, muscular writing, and went out to buy his book shortly thereafter.
“Unnamed Caves” could very well feature as a rare, limpid article in National Geographic,accompanied by lush, artistic pictures of dank caves and stunning wall paintings. The essay follows Sullivan as he visits several painted caves in the US that were made by the Mississippian culture—some of them date from the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, or just before, while others are thousands of years old. The caves are beautiful, except specialists know so little about these cultures that we have no idea how to interpret their art, how to properly rebuild their history. Add to that the problem of looting, which has caused the loss and destruction of several archeological sites and you’ve got a really interesting research topic; the caves are “unnamed” by researchers in order to protect their locations from potential looters. Sullivan describes all of these issues with impact, while interweaving the wider social issues of looting and the relationship between contemporary America and its aboriginal history with breathtaking descriptions of the caves themselves, whose wallsk tells stories that you can be read a little like books, from beginning to end, front to back.
Sullivan sometimes includes a third element to the essays in Pulphead: a little bit of personal history, which usually manages to dramatically increase the essay’s impact and significance. So, for instance, the collection’s opening essay, on Christian rock, moves along with humour and vigour as Sullivan recounts how he ended up attending a huge Christian rock festival in an oversized RV, until he raises the piece’s emotional stakes by breaking into a recollection of that time when he was growing up and got into—and, eventually, out of—Jesus. There’s also that odd but ultimately engrossing piece on Sullivan’s house, which served as the set for the place where one of the characters on One Tree Hill lives, with all the implications that can have on the meaning of the word “home.” One of the best essays in the collection is his most personal, “Mister Lytle,” (you can read it here), in which he tells of his experience living for a year with Andrew Nelson Lytle, an old-generation Southern writer (he came of age in the 1920s) with a penchant for young men and a lot to teach about writing. Talk about legacy.
Many of the pieces in this book are essentially works of long-form journalism, originally published in The Paris Review, GQ, and Harper’s; they are essays in the oldest, more traditional sense of the word, where the writer goes out and tries something, and comes back to tell the world about it, shading the experience in with his own thoughts, impressions, and personal relationship with the subject. The form can be tremendously effective when done well, and shows to a publishing world increasingly used to printing shorter and shorter pieces of writing that it’s nice to delve into a subject for 30 or 40 pages. Sometimes, Sullivan does get a little long-winded, but then, when you’re dealing with someone who writes as vibrantly as he does, you gladly stick around for the ride, don’t you?
Go out and get this book and see how exciting contemporary American letters can be. It certainly got me excited about it, and I’m usually not the biggest fan. Ultimately, the essays build an idea, or perhaps a hypothesis, about the US today, about what identity and culture and belonging means in that big, bold country that everyone always ends up having to talk about. Pulphead has just been published in the UK and now the Brits are getting excited about it too, as they would. I recommend Sullivan especially if you’re a writer of some sort (I know you’re out there!), this book will teach you loads about how to build a piece of text that works, on every level.